Mining companies, coal shippers, labor unions and business groups have joined forces in an effort to catch up with environmental groups in the battle for public attention as the debate over West Coast coal exports heats up.
"The conservation groups have done an amazing job," said Laurie Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the new Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. "From the other side, there has been more silence than perhaps there should have been. ... We want to bring out a little balance in what people are hearing."
To do that, the alliance plans a television, radio and newspaper advertising blitz. It is organized as a 501 (C)(6) trade association and also will register as a lobbying group with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, Hennessey said.
Alliance members include:
coal producers Ambre Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy;
SSA Marine, the Seattle company proposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier at Cherry Point in Whatcom County;
labor unions that include International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union, Brotherhood of Local Engineers and Trainmen, Oregon Building Trades Council and United Transportation Union;
BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific;
Billings Chamber of Commerce, Montana Chamber of Commerce, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, National Association of Manufacturers, and Association of Washington Business;
Washington Farm Bureau.
But if one recently released poll can be believed, a majority of residents in Idaho, Oregon and Washington are already supportive of coal exports.
That poll was conducted by DHM Research on behalf of EarthFix, an environmental reporting consortium of Northwest public broadcast outlets that includes KCTS television and KUOW radio in Seattle. EarthFix reported that 39 percent of those polled said they were somewhat supportive of recent proposals to build coal export facilities, while another 17 percent were very supportive.
About 27 percent of those surveyed said they opposed coal export proposals, while 17 percent were undecided.
The pollsters interviewed about 1,200 people and claimed a margin of error of 2.8 percent. Pollsters also reported that the results for each of the three states were similar.
Other coal related developments in the past week included:
BELLINGHAM CITY HALL
The Bellingham City Council took a tentative step toward a non-binding November ballot measure that would give city residents a chance to express their opinion on coal exports. The council also approved a resolution calling for broad analysis of health, transportation and environmental impacts from Gateway Pacific and other coal terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon.
The coal export issue helped to pack the Monday, July 23, council session. Gateway Pacific opponents showed up to support he council's resolution, while labor union members rallied on City Hall steps before heading into council chambers to argue against an overly restrictive regulatory process for Gateway Pacific.
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, introduced "The True Cost of Coal Act of 2012," which would impose a $10 per ton tax on all extracted coal. Money from that tax would be used to help states and local governments deal with added coal train traffic. In a press release, McDermott said such a tax would be small compared to the average price of U.S. coal exports, which he said was $148.56 per ton in 2011.
But McDermott hastened to add that he would prefer to stop the coal trains, not tax them.
"I'm opposed to these coal trains traveling through the heart of Seattle and the Northwest altogether," he said in a press release. "As we continue to push for strong cumulative environmental impact reviews of these proposals, we also need to be thinking about how we would handle the true costs this coal would have on the Northwest. If the plan is approved, we're talking about a 1.5 mile-long train packed with coal traveling thousands of times a year next to waterfronts and through cities along the Puget Sound - each train spewing up to 500 pounds of toxic coal dust into the environment while increasing traffic on already congested rail tracks. If they get the permits to ship this coal through the Puget Sound area, the railroad and mining companies must pay for the increased costs to our communities and infrastructure, and that is what I'm trying to do here."
A new source of coal for export could come from the Crow Tribe of Indians' reservation in south-central Montana.
The Associated Press reported that a Wyoming mining company, Cloud Peak Energy, has reached tentative option agreements to lease and mine an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal on the reservation, in a deal that appears aimed at tapping into the growing export market for a fuel that's in decline domestically.
The amount of fuel involved in the deal is more than the U.S. consumes annually.
Cloud Peak Energy said it would pay the tribe up to $10 million during an initial option period if the deal is approved by the Crow Tribal Legislature and federal officials with the Department of Interior.
The deal covers three coal deposits near Cloud Peak's existing Spring Creek mine near the Wyoming border. The tribe's reserves are within the Powder River Basin coal fields, which account for about 40 percent of the nation's coal production.
Crow Chairman Cedric Black Eagle has said in past interviews that the coal could be exported to Asian markets, although it's uncertain when mining could begin.
"Partnering with the Cloud Peak Energy will help diversify the tribs's long-term coal revenue, provide good jobs and potential access to export markets for tribal coal," Black Eagle said in a statement.
The announcement follows a stalled partnership between the Crow and an Australian company that hoped to build a $7 billion coal-to-liquids plant on the reservation.
Tribal leaders hoped that plant would give an economic boost to the Crow's 13,000 enrolled members. But four years after the Many Stars coal-to-liquids project was announced, its prospects remain uncertain due to financing difficulties and other problems.
Cloud Peak already has three surface mines in the Powder River Basin.
Since the 1970s the tribe has leased coal on the northern end of the reservation to Westmoreland Resources. The company's Absaloka Mine produced 5.5 million tons of fuel in 2011.
NOTE TO READERS
This is an occasional new feature rounding up coal-related news.